When almost all “yeses” means “no”

The founders of Twin Oaks faced a dilemma.  They could see the faults of a voting based democratic decision system, but did not want to have to wait for every single person in the group to agree.  It was 1967, the feminists had not yet taken the consensus process from the Quakers, secularized it and released it onto progressive moments across the land.

no bad decisions cartoon

If the magic threshold number is not 50% plus 1 person nor 100% what is it?  We could not choose a number, instead we chose a process.  It would be wrong to call it a “super majority” because the exact threshold is not fixed.  What i clumsily call it is “negative minority centric”.  But what does this actually mean?


If you get 24 accept votes to become a member after your visitor period and you get 6 rejects, you get rejected.  Wait a minute, that hardly seems fair.  With membership decisions this is easier to justify.  We get a lot of visitors, the average Oaker has lived here about 8 years, which means they have seen perhaps 500 visitors, plus an uncountable number of guests.  If you have seen that many visitors when you get a little input slip in your 3 x 5 slot requesting you give your input on these people who were just here for three weeks, you think back and say “Oh, i did one tofu shift with them and they were pleasant at a lunch at the fun table, they would probably be a good member.”


But the 6 reject votes the membership team is reading are saying things like “Was a disaster in the garden, pulled up vegetables instead of weeds” and “told an off color joke at the party and kept interrupting everyone, bad sense of boundaries” and “i have concerns about the amount of alcohol they consumed during the visitor period and i think they might have addiction issues”.  And thus they choose to reject, or visit again.

Part of the problem is that Twin Oaks is so large we don’t do what Acorn and most smaller communities do and gather together as a group and discuss membership applications.  Partly we don’t do this because it would be terribly time consuming.  We had a visitor period last year where we had 9 people applying for membership, if it took 20 minutes on average to discuss each of these people (which would be quite short in some cases) and there were 90 members (which has been the average membership for the past several years) that would be 270 person hours of membership decision making.


The deeper reason, however, is as the community has grown, we have become accustomed to the idea that a small subset of the community will make decisions affecting the entire group.  Not everyone reviews the types of insurance policies we buy, or the available cars to replace one which is worn out, or the complex mechanics of the tofu expansion.  We are a trust based community, and part of that means we need to let go of deciding everything about what happens around us.

For Twin Oaks there is a definite risk associated with this.  While theoretically once you are accepted as a provisional member (after your 3 week visitor period) you have another poll after you have lived with us for 6 months.  This is your full member poll, and if you are granted full member status you basically have tenure.  Unless you break our by laws, you can live in the community forever.    This is an important control on our membership process, but it does not really work that well.  In the last 20 years, there have only been 4 people who were rejected going from provisional to full member.  This is out of hundreds of people who have been accepted.

Why do so few people get rejected moving to this desirable status?  Mostly after 6 months we have figured out how to integrate almost everyone into the community.  And everyone has some friends and expulsion (either by failing to accept someone or by actively throwing them out) is a  big deal, it tears up the fabric of community.

About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

One response to “When almost all “yeses” means “no””

  1. Tree Bressen says :

    Though not mentioned in the article you linked to, i believe Movement for a New Society deserves much credit for porting consensus process from Quakers to secular activists. It’s a much more direct and specific transmission than an amorphous idea that it came through feminist rap groups–MNS did a lot of active organizing and teaching.

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